The Impact Of Stress On Physical Health And Immune Function

8 min read
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Mar 29, 2024
The Impact Of Stress On Physical Health And Immune Function
Our bodies naturally react to stress. It is a natural reaction we have to our surroundings when we sense that something might be dangerous. Although it serves a vital purpose, it has the potential to spiral out of control and negatively impact our lives.
You undoubtedly already know that chronic stress is unhealthy and that it weakens your immune system, but you probably don't know the specific reasons why stress is bad for your immune system.
In the sections that follow, we'll go over the reasons why stress management is crucial for the health of your nervous system, how stress impacts your body's defenses against illness, inflammation, and infection, and how to manage stress.
Let's first make sure we comprehend the many forms of stress and the reasons why some are problematic while others are not.

Acute vs Chronic Stress

Although there are many various kinds of stress, we will only talk about the distinctions between the two that affect us the most for the sake of simplicity.
Acute vs Chronic Stress
Acute vs Chronic Stress

Acute Stress

Acute stress is exactly what its name suggests: tension that lasts just a brief period of time. This word refers to situations that our bodies experience in the present and cause us to go into "stress response," which is the physiological reaction to feeling threatened and causing your body to release the stress hormone cortisol along with other hormones intended to help you live.
Your blood pressure may rise, your breathing may become shallow, and you may feel as though your heart is thumping quickly or loudly.
Usually, acute stress is felt as a fight-or-flight reaction. You probably recognize this feeling well. Blood is transported to our muscles, enabling us to move more quickly in the event of a physical altercation and to increase our chances of winning.

Acute stress is necessary for survival, and it has no detrimental impact on our long-term health or immunity as long as it passes after a brief emergency.

Chronic Stress

This type of stress has an impact on immunity. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode too frequently, it becomes locked there, leading to chronic stress. This doesn't mean you're always anxious; rather, it means you experience stress frequently enough that your body can't recover from it in time before the next episode.
Anything can lead to chronic stress, such as detesting your work, being in a toxic relationship, or spending hours each day stuck in traffic.
Your body is unable to produce enough "feel good" chemicals to counterbalance the excessive production of cortisol and other stress hormones, which has an impact on both your mind and your body.

Chronic stress impacts your immune system. From now on, when discussing stress, we will focus on chronic stress rather than acute stress.

Stress and Digestion

Stress interferes with our ability to properly digest food. This is due to the fact that during times of stress, our blood is concentrated in our muscles; nevertheless, blood must also flow to our gut in order for us to digest food when we eat. Consequently, eating when stressed out results in poor nutrition absorption and digestion.(1)
Stress and Digestion
Stress and Digestion
Even with a healthy diet, those who experience ongoing stress may become deficient in several important nutrients. Your body's ability to fend off illness is diminished when it lacks the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.(2)

Stress and Inflammation

Stress increases inflammation, which in turn leads to long-term sickness. According to one study, "75% to 90% of human disorders are associated with the activation of the stress system."

When we endure prolonged stress, our bodies are essentially attacking themselves. This is because persistent stress leads to systemic inflammation, which weakens our bodies' ability to fend against illness.(3)

Stress and Infection

Prolonged stress raises our risk of developing a potentially fatal infection. Research has indeed shown that stress plays a role in nearly all instances of potentially fatal infections.
In fact, a study revealed that "every investigated life-threatening infection was associated with stress-related issues." While our bodies combat stress, the battle may not necessarily target the virus directly.(4)

Stress and Disease

Disease can frequently be directly caused by stress. It hinders the overall function of our immune system by suppressing our T cells, which fight disease.
To mention a few of the significant conditions stress can lead to, it also exacerbates asthma, raises the risk of developing ulcerative colitis, and increases the risk of diabetes. It can also worsen psychological issues and result in plaque accumulation in the arteries, which causes heart attacks.(5)

Stress and Illness Recovery

Stress not only contributes to sickness, but it also makes it more difficult for you to recover from it. Studies have shown that stress not only causes the healing process to take longer than it would otherwise, but it is also strongly connected with worse outcomes for wound healing.(6, 7)

This suggests that stress can impede your ability to heal and get well again, in addition to raising your chance of getting sick.

Self-Care Strategies

As evident, stress can detrimentally affect our immune systems, heightening the vulnerability to infection and severe illnesses. Managing your stress is the best thing you can do to keep it from weakening your immune system.
There exist numerous approaches through which you can accomplish this. The simplest, least expensive, and most direct ways to manage your stress are listed here.
Self-Care Strategies
Self-Care Strategies

1. Exercise

Maintaining our physical health can help us deal with a variety of mental health problems, such anxiety, as well as assist prevent mental health problems from arising. Our bodies release feel-good chemicals when we exercise, which are essentially the reverse of stress hormones.

2. Nutrition

Because they are pleasurable and might release a lot of serotonin in the short term, unhealthy foods may make us feel less stressed. However, most unhealthy meals have the potential to cause inflammation over time, which might subsequently result in disease.
Conversely, eating a diet high in wholesome foods provides our bodies with the nourishment they require to combat stress. Certain nutrients, such omega-3, which is mostly present in wild fish, aid in the body's defense against stress.(8)

3. Practice Mindfulness

Reducing stress can be effectively achieved through mindfulness. You may talk yourself out of tense situations and help yourself relax by being in the moment and concentrating on the here and now.
Additionally, by reducing the amount of time you spend worrying in your brain, you can reduce the amount of conceptual stress you place on difficult circumstances or the future.
All it takes to begin practicing mindfulness is learning to pay attention to yourself and your immediate environment.

4. Breathwork

Although breathwork may seem like a new age method, it has been shown to have health advantages and is effective for people of all ages. Our neurological system and heart rate are both slowed down by the simple act of slowing down our breathing, which improves the overall functioning of our body.(9)
Although there are many various forms of breathwork, you can start by just slowing down and concentrating on your breathing to reduce stress.

5. Therapy

Counseling relieves stress in a variety of ways. Speak with a professional about it; they can offer you coping mechanisms in addition to helping you deal with it.
Not only can having a professional to talk to about what stresses you out and how to deal with it be helpful, but there are many different types of treatment that are specifically designed to help with stress, such as EMDR and hypnotherapy.

A Word From PondStories

It can be quite difficult to realize that you need to take action to control your stress! Recognize that problems may not surface for years after years of unchecked stress; the most important thing is that you are beginning the process of reducing your stress right away.

Sources

PondStories exclusively includes credible sources—such as peer-reviewed studies—to substantiate the information in our stories. To find out more about how we fact-check and maintain the accuracy, dependability, and trustworthiness of our material, read our editorial process.
  1. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical implications, diagnostic strategy, and therapy choices, Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. 2011 Dec;62(6):591–599. J Physiol Pharmacol.
  2. Lopresti AL. A review of the evidence about the effects of environmental and psychological stress on the body's concentrations of micronutrients. Jan 2020;11(1):103–12. doi:10.1093%2Fadvances%2Fnmz082 Adv Nutr.
  3. Jiang CL, Wang YX, and Liu YZ. The common mechanism of diseases associated with stress is inflammation. 2017 June 20;11:316; doi:10.3389%2Ffnhum.2017.00316; Front Hum Neurosci.
  4. Song H, Fall K, Fang F, Lu D, Mataix-Cols D, Erlendsdóttir H, et al. Study on the relationship between stress-related diseases and the risk of potentially fatal infections: a population-based, sibling-controlled cohort study. 2019 Oct 23;367:l5784; BMJ. Citation: 10.1136/bmj.l5784
  5. Salleh MohdR. Stress, disease, and life events. In October 2008, Malays J Med Sci., 15(4):9–18.
  6. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Gouin JP. The mechanisms and effects of psychological stress on the healing of wounds. 2011 Feb;31(1):81–93; Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2010.05.010 doi:10.1016%2Fj.iac.org
  7. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Christian LM, Glaser R, Padgett DA, and Graham JE. Stress and the healing of wounds. 2006;13(5):337–46. doi:10.1159%2F000104862 Neuroimmunomodulation.
  8. Madison AA, Malarkey WB, Rosie Shrout M, Andridge R, Renna ME, et al. An additional substudy of a randomized, controlled trial in midlife people examined the relationship between omega-3 supplementation and stress reactivity of cellular aging biomarkers. 2021 Jul;26(7):3034–42; doi:10.1038/s41380-021-01077-2. McMaster University.
  9. Menicucci D, Neri B, Garbella E, Laurino M, Piarulli A, Zaccaro A, et al. A comprehensive analysis of the psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing: how breath control may transform your life. 2018 Sep 7;12:353. doi:10.3389%2Ffnhum.2018.00353 Front Hum Neurosci.

FAQ about Stress and Immune System

What is stress and how does it affect our bodies?

Stress is a natural reaction to a perceived threat. It can be short-lived (acute stress) or long-lasting (chronic stress). Acute stress helps us deal with dangerous situations, but chronic stress can negatively impact our health.

How does chronic stress affect the immune system?

Chronic stress weakens the immune system by:
  • Suppressing the production of white blood cells that fight infection.
  • Increasing inflammation throughout the body.
  • Hindering the body's ability to absorb nutrients from diet.

What illnesses are linked to chronic stress?

Chronic stress can increase the risk of various illnesses, including:

How can I manage stress and boost my immune system?

There are many ways to manage stress and improve your immune system function, including:
  1. Exercise: Endorphins, which are released during physical activity, have a positive impact on mood.
  2. Nutrition: Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provides your body with the nutrients it needs to fight stress.
  3. Mindfulness: Techniques like meditation and yoga can help you focus on the present moment and reduce stress.
  4. Breathwork: Slowing down your breathing can activate the relaxation response in your body.
  5. Therapy: A therapist can teach you coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

Why is it important to manage stress?

By managing stress, you can improve your overall health and well-being. You'll be less likely to get sick and recover faster from illness.